Witness to the Revolution
Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year
America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul
By Clara Bingham
(Random House, 2016)
Review by Andy Piascik
Witness to the Revolution is a valuable contribution to further understanding and popularizing the radical upsurge of the 1960s. The book is an oral history and we hear from well-known figures of the time such as Ericka Huggins, Tom Hayden and Robin Morgan as well as others like Vivian Rothstein, Wesley Brown and Jan Barry who did significant work mostly behind the scenes in one or more of the movements that together made up the Movement. Though the focus of the book is the one-year period from the summer of 1969 to the summer of 1970, the interviews cover ground going back much earlier and thus provide many important insights about context and individual development.
The primary focus of Witness to the Revolution is the movement against the war in Vietnam. There’s a great deal about the white Left as well as the counterculture and nothing about free jazz, DRUM, AIM, Stonewall or Black Arts. This was a conscious choice. The author explains in the Introduction that Witness to the Revolution is “a selective history” and the book “touches only lightly on the black experience, feminism, and the music scene” because there “just wasn’t room enough in one book.” Even within that dramatically reduced landscape, Bingham covers a great deal of ground. Many of the seminal events of that one-year period are explored in depth: the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, Kent State, the Resistance, the extensive activism at the University of Wisconsin up through and including the bombing of the Army-Math building, Woodstock, Jackson State, the expose of the massacre at My Lai, Altamont, the Pentagon Papers and more.
Some of the best sections of the book are the stories of the Vietnam veterans who came home and built organizations in opposition to the war. They did so as they often struggled with serious physical and psychological problems while having to live the rest of their lives with memories of atrocities they observed and sometimes participated in. As the interviews reveal, some vets found a degree of healing through activism. Others expanded popular awareness of the true nature of the war by shedding valuable light on war crimes by way of investigative reporters like Seymour Hersh.
Throughout, Witness to the Revolution repeatedly underscores how much vitriol some had to endure as elites attacked both the messengers and the message in the student, vet, Black Power and anti-war movements. Even as late as 1970, when many in the upper levels of government, business and planning had concluded that Vietnam was lost, those who showed that the war was not a righteous cause gone awry but consistent with U.S. foreign policy different only in scale, were spied upon, harassed, imprisoned and killed.
As elites today move dramatically to make dissent ever more costly and dangerous, it is inspiring to learn again of the courage and endurance of those from an earlier time of discord. Fundamental to the success in stopping the war as well as resisting attempts to suppress dissent were the existence of massive movements of a galvanized population that was in many ways at war with its own government. One of the book’s biggest strengths is that the power of the collective Movement is always present even when it’s not front and center. And while Witness to the Revolution was published before the ascension of Trump, the thread linking the popular power of the time to the tasks we confront today is inescapable. There are anecdotes and surprises both amusing and moving. It’s hilarious in the extreme, for example, to imagine Mick Jagger’s reaction to the vision some had of the concert that became Altamont, as recounted by Peter Coyote, as that of a collective experience where the Rolling Stones would be one of five acts performing simultaneously on separate stages. We also hear poignantly, if indirectly, from Stephanie Fassnacht, the widow of Robert Fassnacht, the graduate student killed in the Army-Math bombing. Bingham also provides important history of organizations and efforts
Bingham’s introductory qualifier notwithstanding, it is still unfortunate that she excluded important pieces of the history of that time. This is especially so since she devotes so much space to the sorry tale of the completely marginal Weather Underground. Lots of people worked to stop the war in Vietnam even if that may not have been the specific focus of their activism; couldn’t we have heard something from some combination of Elizabeth Martinez, Mike Hamlin, Frances Beal and Dennis Banks? Maybe a little something about the August 29th Chicano Moratorium or from Juan Gonzalez, a student leader at Columbia as well as of the Young Lords?
Instead we once again get page after page of Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers (not to mention too much Timothy Leary). Rudd’s regrets and likening of himself to a police agent are to his credit; too bad the Weather Underground’s story couldn’t have been left at that and some space been granted to the original Rainbow Coalition, say, that was working at the same time and in the same city where Rudd and his comrades were carrying out the senseless Days of Rage.
Stories That Need to Be Heard
Witness to the Revolution contributes a great deal to our understanding of the movements of the 1960s despite this weakness. The book gives voice to people from that time whose stories absolutely have to be heard and amplified as elites continue to distort, ridicule and de-fang the movements of opposition while also re-writing history (such as in the Pentagon’s recent official account of the war in Vietnam). The importance of recording the stories of movement participants is underscored by Bingham’s mention of those subjects who have died since she interviewed them, a number that has increased since.
Given the scale of the trouble we face, we need more books like Bingham’s. Such resources will be of great value as we confront challenges the only antidote to which is the construction of popular power on a mass scale. Witness to the Revolution is testament to how such popular power can accomplish even in the most daunting circumstances.
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose novel In Motion was recently published by Sunshine Publishing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.